Friday, February 28, 2003
Here’s What Passes for Controversy These Days
Another sign that things are pretty tranquil in Vero Beach is that much of the discussion in today’s papers concerns who will start Opening Day, 32 days from now.
Will it be Hideo Nomo, the Dodgers’ workhorse, the team leader in wins and games started in 2002? Or will it be Kevin Brown, who if healthy, remains the nominal ace of the staff?
Well, in theory, the Opening Day starter should be “none of the above.” Odalis Perez hasn’t been mentioned as a candidate, even though he enters 2003 as the Dodgers’ best pitcher, having led the team in ERA and innings pitched in 2002, allowing less than one hit and walk combined per inning. But apparently, Perez doesn’t have the requisite gravitas to get the assignment, so we’ll let that go.
Another theory would suggest the Dodgers start Giovanni Carrara. Or Don Sutton. Or Jon Weisman.
After all, the opposing Opening Day starter will be, in all likelihood, Randy Johnson.
In the month of April for the past three years, the multi-Cy Young winner is 15-3, 2.06 with seven complete games and zero no-decisions, averaging 7 2/3 innings per start. In his Opening Day start in 2002, Johnson shut out San Diego on six hits, 2-0.
No, you don’t ever want to concede a game. But if you’re going to arrange your rotation, does it necessarily make sense to throw your No. 1 against the other team’s, when your No. 1, by definition, isn’t as good?
Perhaps that explains why Odalis Perez might not start until game No. 3, after Johnson and Curt Schilling have passed.
Or perhaps the situation isn’t that dire.
First, let’s look at how Johnson’s done against the Dodgers.
In 2001, Johnson pitched the Diamondback season opener against the Dodgers (who were playing their second game of the year) and won, 3-2. However, Johnson trailed 2-1 after six innings, finding himself outdueled by Eric Gagne, who made the start for the Dodgers in what already seems like an era gone by. Gagne left leading 2-1. but lefty reliever Jose Nunez gave up a two-run home run to Luis Gonzalez in the seventh.
In the past three years, Johnson is 5-1 with a 2.59 ERA against the Dodgers – but that’s in 11 games. He’s averaged 7 1/3 innings per start but won less than half of them, so the Dodgers have been somewhat competitive.
In 2002, Johnson had mixed results in five outings. He had one of his worst starts of the year on May 26, blowing a 4-0 lead by allowing seven runs in five innings, though Arizona rallied to win in extra innings, 10-9.
He came back five days later and allowed three runs – none earned – over eight innings in a 6-3 victory over the Dodgers.
On July 1 in Arizona, Johnson shut out the Dodgers for four innings, then allowed four runs in the next three innings. Meanwhile, Nomo shut out the Diamondbacks over eight innings and the Dodgers won, 4-0.
On July 11, Johnson faced Nomo again and won, 4-3, but the loss was pinned to Paul Quantrill.
Finally, on September 4, Andy Ashby allowed five unearned runs in the first inning against Arizona, and Johnson cruised to a complete-game, 7-1 victory.
So Johnson has alternated between dominant and dominable, and Nomo has been up to the challenge.
As for pitching in April, Nomo allowed four runs in three innings in his first start of 2002. However, he then allowed only four earned runs in his remaining 27 2/3 innings for the month.
For his part, an ailing (as it turned out) Brown was hammered by San Francisco as the 2002 Dodger Opening Day starter, allowing seven runs in four innings in a 9-2 defeat.
And remember that opener in 1999, when Johnson started against Brown at Los Angeles? Brown, who would go on to be 18-9 with a 3.00 ERA that year, allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings Johnson left after 7 innings leading 6-2. But Raul Mondesi homered in the ninth and 11th innings to rally the Dodgers to an 8-6 victory. (This was probably the last great moment in Mondesi’s career.)
Conclusion: It should be Nomo in 2003. Yes, a healthy Brown might still be capable of greatness, and you can make a case against either pitcher in that both of them stunk in their first starts of 2002, but the odds right now are better that Nomo can go 15 rounds with Johnson.
I also think that in setting the tone for the Dodger season, rewarding someone for a strong 2002 is worthwhile. Brown can start the second game against Schilling and feel that’s a worthy challenge. Perez can go in game three against new Arizona acquisition Elmer Dessens and be the favorite in that one.
But for March 31 – yes, March – let’s go with Nomo.
If you’ve digested that, here’s another conundrum for you: Who’s the Opening Day centerfielder? After platooning in 2002, Dave Roberts is going to get his chance against lefties this year – but will his first chance be against the toughest lefty of them all?
Thursday, February 27, 2003
I was slightly off on the box score - there weren't 30 on a side. The Dodgers beat the Tigers, 26-25. The pinch-hitting appearance by J. Price, whose first name, after all this time, I couldn't tell you (isn't that glorious?), put L.A. over the top.
Honestly, I was going to pretend to take Opening Day at Vero Beach seriously, but I just can’t. You’d have as much chance picking the best Dodgers from an episode of American Idol as from a Spring Training opener.
(By the way - just wondering: What would those American Idol judges have said if a 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen came on stage and slammed out Born to Run? Seriously – I want to hear your responses.)
Anyway, instead of extrapolating any real significance from the opener, in which the Dodgers beat the Tigers, 6-5 (if you go by runs scored), I’m just going to stay on the emotional plane I took off on this morning, and write about who walked off the field feeling jazzed. Because what’s Spring Training about more than walking around with a smile on your face?
Here’s who Simon, Paula and Randy would have sent to Hollywood:
Larry Barnes: After homering in the first two intrasquad games, Barnes had a single, stolen base and a two-run, bottom-of-the-ninth, game-winning double. He also injured his foot, but maybe this'll soften the pain.
Mike Kinkade: For the guy who is out to prove that his small sample of great hitting in 2002 wasn’t a misleading one, two homers in an even smaller sample – two at-bats – ain’t all bad.
Jason Romano: A hit in his first Dodger at-bat. (Fred McGriff did the same thing, but don’t you suspect he’s been around too long and too many places to even think about it? I bet Jason’s grinning.)
James Loney: The box score has him 0-for-3 as a pinch-hitter – apparently everyone has some kinks to work out this early in the season, even the agate clerks. Anyway the 18-year-old Loney is cracking a smile about being robbed of a grand slam by an over-the-fence catch. "I was thinking, 'don't rob it, don't rob it,' but I could see he was getting ready to catch it," Loney told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. "This is really fun for me. I can say I got robbed in a big-league Spring Training game."
I’m tempted to write about the converse – such as Calvin Maduro giving up a ninth-inning homer to a Tigers minor leaguer named Craig Monroe – but it seems unnecessary. If you want to give Calvin a reprieve, call our 800 number…
And Away We Go …
Writing for this site has really gotten me revved up for the Spring Training opener today. In recent years, my enthusiasm for the first exhibition game has dovetailed with the reality of its importance. Though it’s great to know that baseball is starting again, what happens in these exhibitions, especially the early ones, is almost meaningless.
This year, though, I’m going to be overanalyzing everything. And loving it. Can't wait to see that first box score with 30 guys in each column!
The Dodger opener begins at 10:05 Pacific Time. I’ll come back later with my postgame reactions.
In the meantime, here’s the quote of the day, from Toronto shortstop Chris Woodward, courtesy of Sports Weekly. Chris must have taken math from Rickey Henderson:
“We were 2½ months into the seasons with 200 at-bats, and I was hitting .190,” Woodward said. “I remember looking at the stats, thinking I can go 50-for-50 and only be hitting .240.
Just think, though – if you went 1000-for-1000, you’d be hitting 1.190, right, Chris?
Wednesday, February 26, 2003
Walter Alston and Sandy Koufax: Two Views
Bill James, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Mangers:
Was he more of an optimist or more of a problem solver? An optimist. Alston waited for six and a half years for Sandy Koufax to find home plate. I doubt that any other manager in baseball history would have, except perhaps Connie Mack.
Jane Leavy, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy:
"The only thing that bothered Sandy was when he threw two or three balls, they got somebody up in the bullpen," said (Joe) Pignatano. Often, it seemed, Alston had someone warming up in the first inning. Red Adams, who later became the Dodger pitching coach, said, "Walter didn't have a lot of scout in him."
Jackie Robinson, then in his final season, clashed with Alston on many subjects, including Koufax. (Tom) Villante, who was affiliated with the Dodgers throughout the fifties and sixties, said, "The one thing about Jackie was, no matter who the hell you were, Jackie appreciated talent. If you were good, he was on your side. I think he saw that in Sandy. Added to that was the fact Jackie Robinson did not like Alston.
"Jackie always thought Alston was dumb. And the very fact that Sandy would every so often show this terrific flash of brilliance and pitch a terrific game and not pitch again for thirty days would add to Jackie saying how dumb this guy was."
Eventually, reporters began to question why Koufax was "wasting his life" in idleness.
Man, the news from Dodgertown is upbeat.
Kevin Brown, Darren Dreifort, Wilson Alvarez - all feeling healthy.
Second basemen Joe Thurston and Quilvio Veras combining for six hits, a walk and three steals in Tuesday's intrasquad game. Thurston went 4-for-4. just like he did in the 2002 regular season finale.
The Dodgers proclaiming a new emphasis on drawing more walks, with Dan Evans telling the Associated Press: “It's something that has to be practiced and preached all the time. When you look at the better ballclubs, they're laden with guys who have high on-base percentages.''
No blues from the Big Blue Wrecking Crew ... I’m enjoying it.
Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Grudzielanek: Channeling Gary Sheffield
Mark Grudzielanek, quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times:
"That last year was a circus over there. A lot went on. I was looking forward to something happening where I could move on and reload because they weren't going in the right direction over there.''
Brown: Channeling Ed Norton
From the Palm Beach Post:
Friday, [Kevin Brown] stepped onto a bullpen mound for the first time since September, calling out "Hello, mound," in playful Ed Norton fashion.
Cora: Channeling Derrel Thomas
In the Daily News today, Brian Dohn writes that Alex Cora is being considered a backup at third. There's your alternative to Ron Coomer.
Lo Duca: Channeling Pure Emotional Energy
MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, who is really bringing along the nitty-gritty information on the Dodgers better than anyone else right now that I can see, reports that Paul Lo Duca played much of last season with a torn groin muscle. Lo Duca says he feels 100 percent right now, thanks in part to taking up yoga.
I've added a link to MLB.com's Dodger news coverage to the site. (Dodgers.com is a subset of MLB.com.)
Adrian Beltre and the Ticking Clock
When your philosophy is that an organization should build from within, and when you’ve watched the poster child for that philosophy make unsteady progress, it’s a little scary.
I really want Adrian Beltre to succeed, both so that the Dodgers will do well, and to validate my belief in him and what he represents. I’ve had bigger attachments to individual Dodgers in the past, but I don’t think that I have more personally invested in anyone on the team this year than Beltre.
But I have to admit, the doubts crept in.
I think most people expected Beltre to turn the corner in 2002. He had shown promise from 1998-2000, then declined in 2001. That was the year he almost died following an emergency appendectomy that was a big E-5, and so everyone was pretty willing to write that year off.
But it didn’t happen. Beltre’s OPS in 2002 was about as bad as it had been the year before. He had three good months and three bad months, in no particular order. He was a mystery, and the Dodgers, in a playoff chase, came close to trading him rather than try to solve it.
Beltre still doesn’t turn 24 until April 7, so I felt very strongly all last year that it was too soon to give up on him, and was relieved that he remained the starter through all his troubles. But I’m aware that everyone’s patience might be exhausted in 2003 if he doesn’t step it up. So, I wanted to take a close look at Beltre’s stats to see if I could figure out what the problem was.
He has never hit at well at home as on the road, but that’s not unusual for a Dodger. His walks and batting average have been going down, which is discouraging – because it might imply that pitchers have figured out that if they just throw it over the plate, he won’t do that much damage.
The Raul Mondesi syndrome. I feared it might be terminal.
To try to get just a hint of why we might expect from Beltre this year, I went to BaseballReference.com. The site provides lists of players whose stats are closest to a player at a given moment. Using a formula created by Bill James, the site ranks the similarity of these players on a scale where a virtually identical player comes in at 1,000 points.
These scores are calculated using a number that effectively includes OPS and other stats. You can skip the upcoming italicized section if the methodology doesn’t concern you. (I believe the methodology below refers to career statistics – I’m assuming it’s adjusted for seasonal statistics, though I don’t know how.)
To compare one player to another, start at 1,000 points and then you subtract points based on the statistical differences of each player:
One point for each difference of 20 games played.
One point for each difference of 75 at bats.
One point for each difference of 10 runs scored.
One point for each difference of 15 hits.
One point for each difference of 5 doubles.
One point for each difference of 4 triples.
One point for each difference of 2 home runs.
One point for each difference of 10 RBI.
One point for each difference of 25 walks.
One point for each difference of 150 strikeouts.
One point for each difference of 20 stolen bases.
One point for each difference of .001 in batting average.
One point for each difference of .002 in slugging percentage.
Okay – welcome back. Here, then, are the players most similar in baseball history to Adrian Beltre, career through age 23:
1. Ron Santo (975)
2. Bob Bailey (913)
3. Rusty Staub (907)
4. Carney Lansford (907)
5. Buddy Bell (903)
6. Ruben Sierra (902)
7. Ken Keltner (901)
8. Gary Sheffield (895)
9. Eric Chavez (895)
10. Bill Mazeroski (893)
Santo, the former Chicago Cub third baseman who has been cited by some as the player most overdue for Hall of Fame recognition (and who happens to be profiled by Ross Newhan in the Times today), has also been the most similar player to Beltre each individual season from ages 20-23.
Here are their OPS marks by age:
Age 20: Beltre (.780), Santo (.720)
Age 21: Beltre (.835), Santo (.842)
Age 22: Beltre (.720), Santo (.659)
Age 23: Beltre (.729), Santo (.820)
Looking at those numbers, Beltre and Santo are not as similar as you might be led to believe. In part, this can be explained by the fact that we’re comparing players not only from different teams, but different eras.
To help combat that, I’m going to use the Adjusted OPS statistics, or OPS+, provided by BaseballReference.com. OPS+ factors in the park and league in which each player played, and is expressed as a percentage above or below a league average of 100.
OPS+ by age
Age 20: Beltre (100), Santo (97)
Age 21: Beltre (116), Santo (121)
Age 22: Beltre (93), Santo (74)
Age 23: Beltre (98), Santo (129)
This helps, but again, we’re reminded that although Santo and Beltre were similar from ages 20-23, they were not identical. Beltre was pretty even with Santo for the first two seasons. They diverged more in the next two seasons, mainly because Santo went way down at age 22, then way up at age 23, while Beltre declined less precipitously but stayed there.
I did find it interesting, if coincidental, that the year Santo’s production went down was the year Beltre had to recover from his botched appendectomy. (Perhaps Santo's struggle with diabetes is the reason?) Even more interesting, like Beltre, all 10 players on the list had at least one season-to-season decline in OPS+ before turning 24:
Ron Santo - declined between 21 and 22
Bob Bailey - declined between 21 and 22
Rusty Staub - declined between 20 and 21, as well as 21 and 22
Carney Lansford - declined between 21 and 22, as well as 22 and 23
Buddy Bell – declined slightly between 21 and 22
Ruben Sierra - declined slightly between 20 and 21, as well as 21 and 22
Ken Keltner - declined slightly between 22 and 23
Gary Sheffield - declined between 19 and 20, as well as 21 and 22
Eric Chavez - declined between 20 and 21
Bill Mazeroski - declined between 21 and 22, as well as 23 and 24
If we get nothing else from this exercise, it helps to know that a temporary decline at a young age is not unusual. It does not mean greater success won’t come.
Now … let’s venture intrepidly toward the future.
Here are the 10 players’ OPS+ scores at age 24:
Ron Santo - 164
Bob Bailey - 83
Rusty Staub - 131
Carney Lansford - 133
Buddy Bell - 105
Ruben Sierra - 111
Ken Keltner - 118
Gary Sheffield - 120
Eric Chavez - 122
Bill Mazeroski - 94
A pretty wide range, there – but eight of the players were above average and above Beltre’s age-23 level. Santo, the player most similar to Beltre, had the best season of his career at age 24, in 1964. He posted a regular OPS of .962, batting .312 with 33 doubles, 13 triples, 30 home runs, 86 walks and 114 RBI.
Here’s my experiment. I’m going to multiply the age-24 OPS+ scores by the similarity scores – thus weighing each score based on how similar the player has been to Beltre – and then average them out:
Santo: 975 x 164 = 159,900
Bailey: 913 x 83 = 75,779
Staub: 907 x 131 = 118,817
Lansford: 907 x 133 = 120,631
Bell: 903 x 105 = 94,815
Sierra: 902 x 111 = 100,122
Keltner: 901 x 118 = 106,318
Sheffield: 895 x 120 = 107,400
Chavez: 895 x 122 = 109,190
Mazeroski: 893 x 94 = 83,942
Sum of similarity scores was 9,091
Average age-24 OPS+ is 1,076,914 divided by 9,091: 118.45
An OPS+ mark of 118 would slightly exceed Beltre’s best season so far. When Beltre had an OPS+ of 116 at age 21 in 2000, he had a regular OPS of .835, batting .290 with 30 doubles, 20 home runs, 56 walks, 85 RBI in 138 games. If he put up similar numbers over a full season this coming year, I think people would be relieved, if not happy.
As I prepared to examine Beltre’s career, I was not expecting to find anything encouraging. I wasn’t aware that a decline at a young age so commonly preceded a rejuvenation. So even though this is nothing to bet the house on, I can afford a little more optimism that Beltre will at least have a better season this year than last.
Just before publishing this, I received my Baseball Prospectus 2003 yearbook in the mail. Using a system that in evolution is like space travel to my using a Big Wheel, Nate Silver and his colleagues are predicting Beltre to show a slight improvement.
The numbers unadjusted for park effects don’t look that glamorous: .268 batting average, .328 on-base percentage, .434 slugging percentage, .762 OPS, 18 homers, so the mainstream fan might not be appeased.
Still, all those people waiting for Beltre to come around, like me, may finally be rewarded for their patience – whatever patience they have left.
Monday, February 24, 2003
Let’s check in on who’s in, who’s out and who’s on the bubble among the 45 candidates for the Dodger 25-man roster. This includes my first look at some of the non-roster candidates.
Obviously, this could change with injuries or trades, but this gives us a baseline heading into the spring training opener Thursday.
Starting Pitchers (4): Odalis Perez, Hideo Nomo, Andy Ashby, Kazuhisa Ishii
Bullpen (5): Eric Gagne, Paul Quantill, Paul Shuey, Giovanni Carrara, Guillermo Mota
Mystery Men (2): Kevin Brown, Darren Dreifort
Starting Lineup (8): Dave Roberts, Paul Lo Duca, Shawn Green, Brian Jordan, Fred McGriff, Adrian Beltre, Joe Thurston, Alex Cora
Bench (2): Mike Kinkade, Daryle Ward
So, there are four spots remaining – either three bench players and one relief pitcher, or four bench players and no relievers. I’ll list the remaining possibilities in order of how likely I think it is they’ll make it.
Most Likely to Succeed (4)
Todd Hundley, C/1B: With his power potential and the fact that he came a trade for Eric Karros, he’s probably there. But you can’t rule out the possibility that he could be truly miserable in Spring Training and could play himself off the team.
Cesar Izturis, SS: The fact that he signed a split contract, with a salary below the major league minimum if he is in the minor leagues, signals that the Dodgers might have realized the potential value of Alex Cora in the starting lineup. They might also think that a starting middle infield of Izturis and Thurston will be too green. (It’s hard to believe, but Cora is now a veteran – he’s now played 398 career games.) They might want Izturis to get full-time at-bats in Las Vegas, where he’s never played, rather than have him become a utility player at such a young age - but the odds are that they think enough of him to shuttle him into the starting lineup.
David Ross, C: Three things could keep him off the team: 1) his injuries, 2) a great showing by a lefty reliever, 3) Hundley reveals he’s had a secret arm transplant
Wilson Alvarez, LHP: Dan Evans seems to really want him to succeed as the Omar Daal replacement – even though Darren Dreifort should fill that role. I’m dubious, but in terms of making the roster, he’s probably got enough to get spring training hitters out and make the move viable. If the Dodgers are healthy, a 12-man staff isn’t necessary, but, you know …
Strong Shot (9)
Pedro Borbon, Jr., LHP: An experienced lefty short man, though he has not been consistent.
Steve Colyer, LHP: 24 years old, had a 3.45 ERA in 59 relief appearances for AA Jacksonville last year. Struck out 68 in 62 2/3 innings. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Dodgers may be hoping for a lefty Eric Gagne (6-2, 195), but Colyer also walked 40.
Jason Romano, IF/OF: See January 28. Not a real promising prospect in my mind, but if Izturis goes to the minors, might make the right 25th man.
Terry Shumpert, IF/OF: Fits the utility man mold. At age 36, in direct competition with his much younger teammate on the Rockies last year, Romano.
Ron Coomer, 1B/3B: See January 31. He doesn’t belong on the team. Has enough name recognition, and the Dodgers don’t really have a backup third baseman. But Beltre might play 1,458 innings or more this year, if you get my drift.
Quilvio Veras, 2B: Has been a starter in the past. Missed 2002 with injuries. The position-player version of Wilson Alvarez. Though there is a spot open for a middle infielder, his lack of outfield experience hurts his chances.
Chad Hermansen, OF: Sounds like there are doubts about his shoulder. He’s out of options, so he’d have to go on the disabled list or be released. Look for him to be just ailing enough for the DL.
Jolbert Cabrera, IF/OF: Versatile, but seems dispensable. Out of options. Dodgers might hope he could be released and unclaimed, thus allowing him to go to Las Vegas.
Yorkis Perez, LHP: 3.29 ERA for Baltimore last year in 23 relief appearances. Pitched better there than he did during his 28 relief appearances in the minors. 35 years old – only 10½ years younger than Jesse Orosco. No relation, I don’t think, to Carlos et al.
See You Mid-Season? (11)
Wilkin Ruan, OF: Still green, but has speed.
Chin-Feng Chen, 1B/LF: Once their most exciting prospect after batting .316 with 31 home runs, 123 RBI and 31 steals in San Bernardino in 1999, he now seems to have some real holes in his game: declining speed, no defense, strike zone issues. Still has something to prove.
Koyie Hill, C: Promising – had a good spring training last year followed by a good season in AA. With Hundley and Ross both candidates for the DL sometime this year, we might see him.
Alfredo Gonzalez, RHP: I know next-to-nothing about him, but have heard his name bandied. He went 2-3, 2.91 with 23 strikeouts in 21 innings for Las Vegas at the end of last season, and apparently had a great winter season. Think the Dodgers didn’t notice Francisco Rodriguez’ rise with the Angels?
Victor Alvarez, LHP: Came up from Las Vegas last year when the Dodgers were slammed by injuries, and floundered in his first opportunities before having a decent outing after the Dodgers were eliminated. 25 years old, with options remaining.
Lindsay Gulin, LHP: Split between Jacksonville and Las Vegas last year. He mainly relieved at Jacksonville but started at the higher level in Las Vegas – you’d expect the progression to be the other way around, wouldn’t you? Anyway, he went 5-2 for each of them and struck out more than a batter per inning. 26 years old.
Troy Brohawn, LHP: Pitched 59 games for Arizona in 2001, 11 games for San Francisco in 2002. Didn’t do that well (career ERA: 5.07) – but is he a good-luck charm?
Calvin Murray, OF: Just looks like a failed prospect still trying to make it happen – and who can’t empathize with that? 31 years old, career OPS of .648 in 277 games.
Larry Barnes, 1B: Formerly in the Angel organization. Lefty bat, but Daryle Ward and Todd Hundley block him.
Calvin Maduro, RHP: 28 years old, started 10 games out of 12 appearances for Baltimore last year and went 2-5, 5.56. With all the righties on the team, can’t see a future for him here.
Rodney Myers, RHP. 33 years old. Mostly in the minors, but did see 14 appearances with the Padres. See Maduro.